‘What would Hillel do?’
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‘What would Hillel do?’

A High Holiday primer

Andy Silver makes motzei in his backyard as his family watches.
Andy Silver makes motzei in his backyard as his family watches.

Teaching my adult English as a Second Language students about the federal holidays always is a pleasure and an honor. It’s important to prepare them for their citizenship exam, which inevitably asks questions about the 12 federal holidays. But more importantly, this newfound knowledge helps my students assimilate in America. Never mind the Memorial Day and Labor Day sales. It’s the sacrifices, not the sales, that are important.

And that day off from work or school? Enjoy it but appreciate its significance.

What about those three mysterious days off for Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur this year? Our agency closed for the High Holidays, canceling three Zoom classes. Although no one in the class is Jewish, and I can guarantee that the citizenship exam will not include questions about these religious holidays, I wanted my students to know something about the Yamim Nora’im – the Days of Awe.

But what was that “something” I wanted to impart? And how do I share my personal observance of the holiday?

As I began to prepare my lesson, I found it difficult to distill the High Holidays into a few basic concepts. Then I remembered the sage Hillel, who taught all of Judaism to a prospective convert while the man stood on one foot. “What is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbor,” Hillel told him. “Everything else is commentary.”

That’s it! I would channel the spirit of our great rabbi and keep my lesson simple. Everything else would be commentary.

First, I separated the holidays and then tied them together like the braids in a challah.

“In Hebrew, Rosh Hashanah literally means the head of the year,” I told my class.

Is this enough information? If it is, I could click “End Meeting,” help my husband bake the round challot, and run to the supermarket to buy a new fruit. (Uh oh – more elements of the holiday to discuss?) If it isn’t, do I need to talk about the Creation and explain that this New Year is number 5782 in the Jewish calendar?

I also would be remiss if I didn’t mention “teshuva, tefillah, and tzedaka,” the essence of the holiday. Unfortunately, these are Hebrew words, and their translations are complicated. Do we return or repent? For what do we pray, and do we pray alone or in a group? Does tzedaka mean charity, righteousness, or justice?

We discussed forgiveness and what it means to say “I’m sorry.” Everyone was familiar with prayer, especially the students from Pakistan and Guinea who pray five times daily, and the one from Haiti, who sometimes misses class to attend a church service. Most of the class comes from countries bursting with injustice; they know what it means to seek justice.

Since I was teaching virtually, it was easy to “show and tell” the holidays. Candlesticks, a wine goblet, a jar of honey, and a shiny red apple were the Rosh Hashanah ambassadors from my dining room and kitchen. I held my machzor close to the computer screen to show our prayerbook. “Do the Hebrew letters resemble Arabic?” I asked the Arabic speakers.

I tried to blow the shofar, a souvenir from Israel, but to no avail. In any event, we talked about Abraham and Isaac and the wake-up call of the shofar.

With all this information, we had a taste of Rosh Hashanah. It was now time to discuss Yom Kippur, the third day off in our school calendar.

Keep it simple, I reminded myself. Keep it simple? The holiest day of the Jewish calendar? What would Hillel do?

Much to my surprise, a student helped me.

The Silvers’ grandson Micah plays guitar at the backyard feast.

“‘Yom’ must mean day,” he said, “because ‘Yama’ in Arabic means day.” “But Miss Merrill, what does ‘atonement’ mean?”

I mentioned the themes of forgiveness and confession. I compared God to a judge, and our Father and King. We talked about fasting and how it makes us feel. Finally, I explained that after our ten days of introspection between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, God is ready to seal the Book of Life that He began inscribing on Rosh Hashanah.

I tried keeping my High Holidays 101 class simple and accessible. But the truth is, you must experience the holiday to really appreciate it. Abraham cried out “Hineni” (“Here I am”) on Mount Moriah. We, too, must cry out “Hineni” – here I am, ready for the challenges of a New Year.

During this difficult year, how do I say “Hineni?”

I get tested for covid so I can celebrate safely with my family and friends. I reinstate a 35-year tradition of ushering in the holiday with dear friends, a tradition we skipped last year due to the pandemic. We have a Rosh Hashanah brisket and chicken picnic in the backyard, instead of in the dining room. We bless homemade candles and homemade challah and hear a loud “Amen” from one of my grandsons. We bless apples with honey harvested two years ago from hives on the rooftop of a Manhattan office building. The bees are on hiatus, because the employees (who also are the beekeepers) have not been in the office for 1 1/2 years.

I look at the young parents at our table, remembering when they were the babies. I picture the grandparents who no longer are with us. Now we fill that role. I’m hypnotized by another grandson munching on an apple and eating chicken soup, as if it is the best food in the world.

Because of covid, I pre-register for services at Congregation Shomrei Emunah, my synagogue in Montclair. I clear security, showing my vaccination ID. A GPS would help me locate the many alternative services, which offer a variety of types of covid protection.

I sit masked and socially distanced in the physical sanctuary, which has limited seating. Honored with an aliyah, I stand at my seat, far away from the Torah and the bimah. Shaking hands is a distant memory.

I sit masked in the tent, which is more crowded but is open air.

I stand masked on a rug in a parking lot, at the children’s service, watching my daughter cling to her son, as they listen to the shofar blasts together.

I sit unmasked with my husband, on the deck of our house, as we Zoom a service from another synagogue.

Sometimes I feel like an alien. How can there be so many portals to the High Holidays, none of which are familiar?

But then I sing “Zakhreinu L’hayyim” – remember us for life. I harmonize singing “Avinu Malkeynu” (Our Father, our King). I chant “Hannah’s Song,” part of the haftarah on the first day of Rosh Hashanah, and remember what it’s like to desperately want a child.

I get goose bumps when I examine the words of “Unetaneh Tokef,” a prayer that was written 1,000 years ago but has the relevance of the evening news. When we ask: “Who will perish by fire and who by water … who by hunger and who by thirst, who by earthquake and who by plague, who will be impoverished and who will be enriched…” I understand that the prayer is a call to action in our broken world.

My ESL students won’t hear the clarion call of the shofar blasts – neither the broken sounds nor the continuous ones. They won’t fast and they won’t feast. But maybe, just maybe, on their three days off from school, they will pause for a moment and picture their teacher with honey on her fingers, surrounded by family and friends, welcoming a New Year.

As Hillel said, “Everything else is commentary.”

Merrill Silver of Montclair is a freelance writer, and she teaches ESL at JVS of MetroWest. Find her at merrillsilver.wordpress.com

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